How to ease into (and even enjoy) your dissertation writing
We can’t deny it: writing your dissertation is hard. All that time you devote to research is a worthy endeavor but, no matter how many plums you’ve collected, at some point you know you’re stalling. In my longtime dissertation coaching and editing practice, I have witnessed, cautioned, and counseled many dissertation writers on the difficulties of the actual writing. Peter, a new doctoral candidate who came from the corporate world, confided, “I struggle daily with understanding the shift from business and occupational writing to writing as a researcher according to certain expectations and standards.”
And expectations and standards there are. Academic writing is a breed unto itself, with certain “disciplinary expectations” (Casanave, 2008, p. 15) and conventions demanded. A few: no contractions, no colloquialisms, few or no passive voice, no “emotional” words (completely, extremely, very, utterly, fantastically), no redundancy (period of time), no jargon (with exceptions, depending on your field and topic), no euphemisms (“After ingesting licorice-flavored cyanide, the rat gave up the ghost.”), no anthropomorphisms (“This book comforts you.”). See the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA, 2010, pp. 65-71) for a roundup.
What Is Good Dissertation Style?
Good dissertation style is not that of a conversation, personal essay, or work of fiction. Neither should dissertation writing be stuffed with incessant polysyllabic words that went out of fashion with nineteenth-century classical education. Joyner, Rouse, and Glatthorn (2012) summarized well: “While there seems to be a trend away from the highly formal style and a reaction against turgid academic prose, there is still the expectation that the dissertation will sound scholarly. . . . scholars write in a style that is formal, not colloquial, and is objective, not subjective” (p. 7).
Yet articles in scholarly journals are notorious for incomprehensibility and obfuscation (pardon my polysyllables) and not only for scientific or medical topics. Harvard professor and chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, Steven Pinker (2014) left nothing to subtlety or prudence in his Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Why Academics Stink at Writing”: “Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?” (para. 3).
Write in Your Own Words
Some professors, editors, and coaches advise starting to write in your own words, without bothering about proper dissertation style (e.g., Joyner et al., 2012). I recommend this approach too, and it has advantages and drawbacks. The main benefit is that it gets you going. The main limitation is that you may get going in the wrong direction.
Read Journals and Good Dissertations
You should already be acquainted with scholarly style from your research, reading scholarly articles, and writing course papers. But reading and writing are two different animals (oops—anthropomorphism). Read or reread articles you can understand in respected journals. Read dissertations that have won awards and have been recommended by professors you trust (the quality of accepted dissertations varies bigtime). Do some of the exercises in Greene and Lidinsky’s (2014) From Inquiry to Academic Writing, not only for reading and writing in academic style but also for thinking and extracting the essence of articles (this book will help too in your literature review).
To write good Dissertationese dialect that doesn’t get you kicked out of the kingdom of Academe takes practice. Aim to achieve that balance of formality but understandability (although I do recommend words of three syllables when one will normally do). However (or But or Nevertheless), I suggest, as I said, that you write at first in whatever style comes out. It’s hard enough to get the words down without fretting about their Greek roots. With the list of APA “no’s” in front of you, you can fancy up later.
Of course, I need not remind you never to copy passages verbatim, as brilliantly as they may accord with your topic, without the proper citations. You never know when that ugly word plagiarism will catch up with you, although definitions of plagiarism vary among faculty (Martin, 2005). Remember too that most universities subscribe to Turnitin, that devilish plagiarism hunter.
It’s true that Turnitin has received some serious criticism (Dames, 2008) and is not infallible. When one of my clients turned in her dissertation, Turnitin tagged every use of the most generic words and phrases that were at the heart of her topic and research! (We wrote a strong letter to her chair pointing out the deficiencies— and she passed this hurdle.) Nevertheless, your university probably requires you to put your dissertation through the Turnitin wringer. Better paraphrase than sorry.
Prices for plagiarism can be very steep. Witness only one scandal that made headlines: Seven years after Montana Senator John Walsh’s award of his master’s, the Army War College found out that he had plagiarized his thesis. The college revoked his degree, and he dropped out of the Senate race (“Army War College Revokes,” 2014; Bailey, 2014).
See Published (and Maybe Maverick) Guidelines
For your very own work, see the many helpful and frequently hilarious suggestions in the provocative booklet by Pinker, Munger, Sword, Toor, and MacPhail (2014), Why Academic Writing Stinks and How to Fix It. In this booklet, which reprints the Pinker article I referred to earlier and others on the art and failings of academic writing, see especially Sword’s (2014) prescription for curing yourself of “jargonitis” (p. 13).
Recognize that the processes of writing, thinking, digesting, rethinking, revising, re-rethinking, and re-revising cannot be hurried. Your subconscious continues to chug along, even if you are staring out the window. As you come back and back again to your work, it all gets clearer and you revise with a more incisive eye.
So give the process—and yourself—time to sit, ruminate, play with ideas, jot a few notes, write a few words, wander to the window, come back, take a swig of iced tea, and write a few sentences. Maybe you label these actions as diversions or procrastinations. They’re not; they’re all part of the precious creating process.
I have always loved the advice for any writing by the wonderful American author Madeleine L’Engle (1971), who reprinted a poem in A Circle of Quiet by one of her “favorite authors, Anon”:
The written word
Should be clean as bone,
Clear as light,
Firm as stone.
Two words are not
As good as one. (p. 149)
Below this poem, L’Engle noted that in her own writing she should pay more attention to this advice. In our scholarly writing, so should we.
As you begin your actual dissertation writing, with mindfulness and conscious thought you can “program” your mind to expect and act on the best. Here are some affirmations for going forward fearlessly in writing and even enjoying the process:
- I open, listen, and write.
- I don’t need to mow it down but flow it forward.
- I am shown the way.
- I know what to do, where to look, and who to ask.
- I am the perfect conduit. This dissertation writes itself through me.
- This work goes smoothly, easily, quickly, and joyfully.
Now, get thee to thy keyboard!
American Psychological Association. (APA). (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Army War College revokes Senator John Walsh’s degree after plagiarism investigation.
(2014, October 10). Huffington Post Politics.
Bailey, J. W. (2014, July 24). The Senator John Walsh plagiarism scandal. Plagiarism Today.
Casanave, C. P. (2008). Learning participatory practices in graduate school: Some perspective-taking by a mainstream educator. In C. P. Casanave & X. Li (Eds.), Learning the literacy practices of graduate school: Insiders’ reflections on academic enculturation (pp. 14-31). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Dames, K. M. (2008). Turn you in: Scholarly ethics in a culture of suspicion. Information Today, 25(6), 23-25.
Greene, S., & Lidinsky, A. (2011). From inquiry to academic writing: A text and reader (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Joyner, R. L., Rouse, W. A., & Glatthorn, A. A. (2012). Writing the winning thesis or dissertation: A step-by-step guide (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
L’Engle, M. (1971). A circle of quiet. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Martin, A. (2005). Plagiarism and collaboration: Suggestions for “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, 28(3), 57-71.
Pinker, S. (2014, September 26). Why academics stink at writing. Chronicle of Higher Education.
Pinker, S., Munger, M. C., Sword, H., Toor, R., & MacPhail, T. (2014). Why academic writing stinks and how to fix it. New York, NY: Chronicle of Higher Education.
Sword, H. (2014). Inoculating against jargonitis. In S. Pinker, M. C. Munger, H. Sword, R. Toor, & T. MacPhail, T., Why academic writing stinks and how to fix it (pp. 13-16). New York, NY: Chronicle of Higher Education.
Sword’s article is also available at Chronicle of Higher Education, 58(38).
Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).
© 2016 Noelle Sterne
Dissertation coach, editor, scholarly and mainstream writing consultant, author, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com
The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.